A Somewhat Neglected but Interesting Section of the Bible--A Spirited Debate--What is the Strongest Thing in the World?--Daring of the Young Men-- The Pessimism of Ignorance--Proper Attitude Toward Grief and Death--Dogs in the Bible--Judith and Holofernes--Patriotic Propaganda--Character of Judith--Comparison With Esther--A Discussion of Materialism--The Love of Beauty--Etiquette and Table Manners--Right Use of Wine--Apostrophe to Death--Susanna and the Elders--A Daniel Come to Judgment--Alexander the Great--Career of Judas Maccabeus--Fighting With Elephants--W isdom, Valour, and Self-government of the Romans--An Ideal Editor--His Pleasant Humour--Torture of the Martyrs--The Mother and Her Seven Sons--The Editor's Farewell.
The books of the Apocrypha are among the most interesting parts of the Bible; they contain excellent stories, deep wisdom, keen wit, shrewd observation of life, with a continual revelation of human nature. They have been unduly neglected not only by the public, but by Bible students; but they will richly repay an attentive reading. As they are generally unknown to children, one comes to them in mature years with fresh eyes; one is unhampered by previous conceptions of their doctrinal or moral significance; it is almost as if a man of forty read the Psalms or Hamlet for the first time.
At the beginning of the Apocrypha, we come upon one of the noblest passages in the Bible; it is in the third and fourth chapters of the First Book of Esdras. It is in the form of a short story, and is an answer to this eternal question, What is the strongest thing in the world? The answer awarded the prize is precisely the one that would meet with the approval of the majority of thoughtful men and women in the twentieth century.
King Darius had given a great state feast, and
while he was sleeping off the effects, three young gentlemen of his bodyguard wrote three sentences in competition and slipped them under his pillow. When he rose up, he called upon all the princes and the governors and the chiefs of the army and took his place on the throne in the royal hall of judgment; and in the presence of a vast concourse the three young men were summoned and requested to read and defend their opinions; the prize to be awarded by popular vote.
The first had written, Wine is the strongest. This statement he defended by showing how wine transformed the character and personality of those who indulged in it, how when they were drunk not only their behaviour but their whole point of view was different from their normal condition; and he insisted, with many amusing examples cited for corroboration, that an element which could so change the very heart of man must be the strongest thing in the world. It is interesting to remember that every one of the examples given by the speaker is just as noticeable to-day as then.
There is no equality in the world like that produced by drunkenness; no matter what their talents or social position, wealth or intellect or disposition may be in hours of soberness, drunken men are all on the same plane, both with their contemporaries and with those who have been in the grave three thousand years. One might say that alcohol puts all its victims on the same plane with a spirit level.
The second had written, The king is strongest. Then he proceeded to pay tribute to the supreme power of kings, giving many illustrations both in times of peace and in times of war; his eloquence did not conceal his irony, which was in fact so thinly veiled that it is surprising that Darius did not interrupt him with a reprimand. Man, said the speaker, is the highest form of strength produced on the planet, and as the king is always the chief and ruler of men, he must be the strongest thing in the world. Then he showed how both war and taxation depended on the caprice of the king; how the lives of his subjects were in the hollow of his hand; how some would go to war and others work on farms, merely at the king's pleasure; and then, with all the spoils that they had won by blood and sweat, they brought them humbly to the sole profiteer--the king. And while thousands of his subjects were thus fighting and working, "he lieth down, he eateth and drinketh, and taketh his rest." Surely the world affords no such example of strength as the king.
He made out a good case for his own time, and for many future generations; but not forever. He had on his side human statutes, but not natural law. The curious thing to a student of history is the long endurance of men and women under the caprices and cruelties of tyrants--why should they have enjoyed such arbitrary power for so many centuries? And, indeed, what the orator said was true of the Tsar Nikolas and the Kaiser Wilhelm so late as
1917; but it is true no longer. Our time (I hope) has put the last nail in the coffin of royalty. And it is worth remembering that Absolutism got its deathblow not from the wisdom, intelligence, and courage of the people, but solely through its own excesses and madness. Had the Tsar ruled with anything resembling wisdom and forbearance and consideration, he might have died in his bed; had Wilhelm felt any limitations this side of divinity, he might to-day still be on the throne.
The third had written, Women are strongest: but above all things Truth beareth away the victory.
This man Zorobabel--the only one whose name is given--was an orator, an observer and a philosopher ; he spoke not only for his age, but for all time. He gave many piquant examples of the terrific power of women, in which he is supported not only by Hebrew history, but by the novelists and dramatists of the twentieth century. It was evident that he believed he could speak freely; for he did not hesitate to show the superiority of women to the king himself; and he pointed out something that has been the theme of many an American novel: that men are really the slaves of women.
Yea, and if men have gathered together gold and silver, or any other goodly thing, do they not love a woman which is comely in favour and beauty?
And letting all those things go, do they not gape, and even with open mouth fix their eyes fast on her; and have not all men more desire unto her than unto silver or gold, or any goodly thing whatsoever?.....
By this also ye must know that women have dominion over you: do ye not labour and toil, and give and bring all to the woman?.....
Yea, many there be that have run out of their wits for women, and become servants for their sakes.
Many also have perished, have erred, and sinned, for women.
And now do ye not believe me? is not the king great in his power? do not all regions fear to touch him?
Yet did I see him and Apame the king's concubine, the daughter of the admirable Bartacus, sitting at the right hand of the king,
And taking the crown from the king's head, and setting it upon her own head; she also struck the king with her left hand.
And yet for all this the king gaped and gazed upon her with open mouth: if she laughed upon him, he laughed also: but if she took any displeasure at him, the king was fain to flatter, that she might be reconciled to him again.
O ye men, how can it be but women should be strong, seeing they do thus?
Then the king and the princes looked one upon another: so he began to speak of the truth.
After paying an eloquent tribute to the permanence and indestructibility of truth, he burst out passionately:
Wine is wicked, the king is wicked, women are wicked, all the children of men are wicked, and such are all their wicked works; and there is no truth in them; in their unrighteousness also they shall perish.
As for the truth, it endureth, and is always strong; it liveth and conquereth for evermore.
Then all the people shouted with enthusiasm:
Great is Truth, and mighty above all things.
Here is a verdict ratified to-day by Science, Art, and Religion.
In the fourth chapter of the Second Book of Esdras we find a number of searching questions, questions that have tormented the mind of man since Adam began to think. In a few picturesque words, we are given precisely the same conclusions arrived at in 1781 by Immanuel Kant--that the human mind cannot know the things beyond its reach, although those are the things it most ardently desires to understand. The angel Uriel tells the enquirer Esdras that if he cannot give the exact weight of the fire, or the precise measurement of the blast of the wind, or call again the day that is past, he must not expect to be able to grasp the Infinite Mind. And Uriel, after putting some more questions, declared:
For like as the ground is given unto the wood, and the sea to his floods: even so they that dwell upon the earth may understand nothing but that which is upon the earth: and he that dwelleth above the heavens may only understand the things that are above the height of the heavens.
Esdras had expressed a sentiment that has driven many in later times to madness and to suicide.
It were better that we were not at all, than that we should live still in wickedness, and to suffer, and not to know wherefore.
But Uriel gave as we see limitations to human knowledge, in which he is supported by many modern writers. If I understand at all that extraordinary
play, Beyond Human Power, by Björnson, it was written to show the danger and folly of attempting to grasp things forever beyond the reach of the human intellect. Yet the desire to do so is inherent in man, and its negation is a cause of pessimism. As Esdras puts it, "We pass away out of the world as grasshoppers, and our life is astonishment and fear."
The sorrow and desolation caused by the years 1914-1918, the general and the particular grief, one will find analysed and discussed in the tenth chapter of the Second Book of Esdras. A woman had lost her son, had refused the consolation offered by her neighbours, had refused both meat and drink, had refused to take up the burden of life again, and had insisted that she would spend the remaining moments of her time on earth in wailing and lamentation, living only in the memory of her son. For this she is sharply rebuked by Esdras, who told her that in the universal distress of the whole nation, the entire country being in mourning, she must not indulge in selfish sorrow. There was work to be done, and she must live out her own life, and not throw it away.
For ask the earth, and she shall tell thee, that it is she which ought to mourn for the fall of so many that grow upon her.
For out of her came all the first, and out of her shall all others come, and behold, they walk almost all into destruction, and a multitude of them is utterly rooted out.
Who then should make more mourning than she, that hath lost so great a multitude; and not thou, which art sorry for one.
The healing effects of Nature have never been more wisely set forth; in spite of appalling losses and unspeakable disasters, nature goes quietly on with her eternal work of reparation and of new growth.
Now therefore keep thy sorrow to thyself, and bear with a good courage that which hath befallen thee.
For if thou shalt acknowledge the determination of God to be just, thou shalt both receive thy son in time, and shalt be commended among women.
While it would be both futile and flippant to attempt to minimise the grief of a parent who lost a son in the war, I believe that no one has a right to live in a tomb. No one should live only in the memory of those who are gone; let the vanished figure be an influence rather than an annihilator; let it lift up, rather than crush. For not only is the gift of life too precious to be thrown away, there is always work to be done. The tender-hearted Teacher was neither indifferent nor cruel when He said, "Let the dead bury their dead, and come and follow me."
It is rather curious that in the Bible so little mention is made of family pets. Considering the exalted place of the Dog in literature, and how in Sanskrit tales and in Homer he was so beloved and respected, why is it that the Hebrews ignored him? Both in the Old and New Testament the word dog is a term of reproach, and although there certainly were family dogs in Palestine--they ate of the crumbs that fell from the master's table, and licked
the sores of Lazarus the beggar--they are never spoken of affectionately, nor do they play any part in the daily life of man. For this reason, the sole reference that I can remember of a companionable dog, found in the eleventh chapter of Tobit, is worth recording:
So they went their way, and the dog went after them.
The book of Tobit also contains much sound advice, especially in Chapters IV and XII.
It is good to keep close the secret of a king, but it is honourable to reveal the works of God. Do that which is good, and no evil shall touch you.
In dramatic intensity, the story of Judith rivals that of Esther. The Assyrian king sent out General Holofernes, with an enormous army, which conquered and laid waste many cities and farms; when the victorious host reached Syria, the inhabitants were in mortal terror. Most of the coast towns threw open their gates, paid tribute, and received him with song and dance.
But in Jerusalem, where the children of Judah had only lately returned from captivity, it was decided to resist the invader; they fortified the mountains round about, and prepared to withstand a siege. Holofernes heard of their determination, and he asked Captain Achior, the Ammonite, who these people were, and why they did not surrender like the people of the west. Achior gave him briefly the whole history of the children of Israel from
the days of Moses to the present date. Achior said their strength and their weakness depended entirely on whether they were or were not true to their God; and he advised finding out, for if they are now true to Jehovah, said he, you can do nothing with them. Their God will fight for them.
Honest Achior was severely rebuked for his warning, and Holofernes insolently said that he would make the mountains drunk with Jewish blood and choke their fields with dead bodies. General Holofernes then treated Achior exactly as Abraham Lincoln treated Vallandingham; he sent him into the enemy's camp, where the Jews received him gladly, comforted him, and listened with intense interest to his report of the advancing host.
Holofernes drew near to the city of Bethulia, and cut off the water supply, which came from without the walls; so that the inhabitants were soon suffering from both hunger and thirst.
Judith was a beautiful widow, whose husband had died from sunstroke. For three years she had remained absolutely faithful to his memory, and although by reason of her beauty and wealth she was much sought after, she seemed indifferent to all men. "And there was none that gave her an ill word; for she feared God greatly."
The people told Ozias, the mayor of the town, that he must surrender to Holofernes; he pleaded for five days more. Judith sent for the chiefs in the city government, and told them to trust in the
Lord, reminding them of His favours to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She then said that she and her maid were going out of the city gate that night, and that Ozias must not reveal the fact nor make any enquiry.
Then Judith, after a long prayer, took off her widow's weeds, washed her body all over with water, anointed herself with perfume, arranged her hair in the most attractive style, and put on her "garments of gladness;" this last phrase being perhaps the origin of the familiar term in American slang. She "decked herself bravely, to allure the eyes of men," and, accompanied by her maid, she went straight to the Assyrian camp. The soldiers were instantly captivated by her beauty and grace of manner, and she informed them that she must see Holofernes as she had a plan by which he could capture the town from which she had just escaped. So like a future Monna Vanna, she went into the tent of the alien.
As she went, the soldiers said to one another, "Who would despise this people, that have among them such women?" And their desire for conquest was considerably sharpened by the sight of her.
General Holofernes came forth from his tent in all his glory, with silver lamps going before him. Judith had not the slightest difficulty in twisting the great man around her little finger, for her beauty shone out in the lamplight, and her words of deceit and flattery possessed him immediately. He said fatuously, "And now thou art both beautiful in thy
countenance, and witty in thy words." For three days she kept him at arm's length, with the thrust and parry of skilful language, but finally she consented to dine with him in his tent.
And Holofernes took great delight in her, and drank much more wine than he had drunk at any time in one day since he was born.
All the guards and attendants were sent away, the tent was closed, and Judith was left alone with Holofernes, who had fallen into a drunken sleep. She came to his couch, drew his sword, prayed for strength, and with her left hand seized the hair of his head, and with her right hand smote him in the neck twice with all her might, so that his head was severed from his body. Carrying the head in a bag, she and her maid hastened to the city of Bethulia.
When she was still afar off, Judith gave a loud, triumphant call to the watchman at the gate, so loud that many in the city were awakened, and rushed to the walls. There they made a huge bonfire for a light, and in the midst of the glare Judith dramatically held aloft the head of Holofernes. It was a great scene, never to be forgotten in the annals of the town.
It is significant of the immense respect that the citizens held for her that every word of her story was accepted without qualification. There were no doubters, like the husband of Monna Vanna. Judith
had taken the head of Holofernes without paying anything for it--except the crucifixion of her nerves.
Then all the women of Israel ran together to see her, and blessed her, and made a dance among them for her: and she took branches in her hand, and gave also to the women that were with her.
And they put a garland of olive upon her and her maid that was with her, and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women: and all the men of Israel followed in their armour with garlands, and with songs in their mouths.
Judith received frequent offers of marriage and refused them all, remaining constant to the memory of her husband, who must have been an extraordinary character to leave so ineffaceable an impression. Perhaps Judith also thought that her visit to the Assyrian camp might disturb the thoughts of a new husband, even though her absolute innocence was universally accepted. One can never predict the subtle reaches of the poison of a jealous imagination. Perhaps she had seen enough of men. As it was, she was free and independent, the First Lady of the town. It is pleasant to observe that she made her servant a free woman, because of her courage and fidelity in accompanying her mistress to the enemy's lines. Judith lived to be a hundred and five years old, and was buried beside her husband.
She is one of the national heroines. As Esther saved her people by winning the favour of their Persian ruler, so Judith saved them by beheading
their enemy. It is worth remembering that although they were both clever and accomplished women, they won their triumphs by their personal beauty, and by their confidence in it. Of Judith, the account says, "Her beauty took his mind prisoner." And the all-but-miraculous ability of women to look one emotion and feel another, something forever beyond the reach of men, is well expressed in the apocryphal addition to the book of Esther:
And she was ruddy through the perfection of her beauty, and her countenance was cheerful and very amiable: but her heart was in anguish for fear.
Her terror was kept down, for she actually controlled the flow of her blood by the power of her will; just as the great actress Duse could blush whenever she wished.
The book of Judith resembles the book of Esther again in being patriotic propaganda, and was doubtless taught to the Hebrew children in the schools.
Painters and dramatists have made free use of Judith and Holofernes; the latest play on this theme is by Arnold Bennett, who has managed the dialogue with his accustomed skill and vivacity.
In the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, which contains many passages of striking and unexpected beauty, there is, in the thirteenth chapter, a remarkable discussion of the materialists, in which they are praised for their love of beauty and strength, and condemned because they do not penetrate
through the wonders of nature to the Divine Artist. This passage is surely as applicable in the twentieth century as when first written.
Surely vain are all men by nature, who are ignorant of God, and could not out of the good things that are seen know him that is: neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster;
But deemed either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the lights of heaven, to be the gods which govern the world.
With whose beauty if they being delighted took them to be gods; let them know how much better the Lord of them is: for the first author of beauty hath created them.
But if they were astonished at their power and virtue, let them understand by them, how much mightier is he that made them.
For by the greatness and beauty of the creatures proportion-ably the maker of them is seen.
But yet for this they are the less to be blamed: for they per-adventure err, seeking God, and desirous to find him.
For being conversant in his works they search him diligently, and believe their sight: because the things are beautiful that are seen.
Howbeit neither are they to be pardoned.
For if they were able to know so much, that they could aim at the world; how did they not sooner find out the Lord thereof?
The Book of Ecclesiasticus was written by a man of the world, and is filled not only with wisdom, but with a dry humour. Evidently opera and concert singers were then vain and difficult, and it was better to have a row of footlights always between them and the average man, for they seldom improved on acquaintance. The queen of song off the
stage was often a conceited and petulant child. This has, of course, all been changed in our time. But in the ninth chapter, we are told:
Use not much the company of a woman that is a singer, lest thou be taken with her attempts.
Longevity was about the same then as now; for in Chapter XVIII, we read, "The number of a man's days at the most are an hundred years."
Those who talk all the time are justly regarded as among the most pestilential curses of the world; they were no more popular then than now, for in Chapter XXV it is said, "As the climbing up a sandy way is to the feet of the aged, so is a wife full of words to a quiet man."
The author of this book knew well that etiquette Was the next thing to godliness; there is no doubt that bad table manners have wrecked many homes, quenched the fire of love, and destroyed the good influence of many pious folks. In Chapter XXXI we receive a lesson in behaviour at meals, in which greediness and the famous "boarding-house reach" are both condemned. No woman should marry a man until she has seen him eating.
If thou sit at a bountiful table, be not greedy upon it, and say not, There is much meat on it. ...
Stretch not thine hand whithersoever it looketh, and thrust it not with him into the dish. . . .
Eat, as it becometh a man, those things which are set before thee; and devour not, lest thou be hated.
Leave off first for manners' sake; and be not unsatiable, lest thou offend.
When thou sittest among many, reach not thine hand out first of all.
Apparently there were times when politeness forced a gentleman to eat at his host's table, either when he was not hungry, or when the particular food was unpalatable. In the following verse a ready and easy way to preserve both one's manners and one's health is given:
And if thou hast been forced to eat, go forth, vomit, and thou shalt have rest.
An excellent method with parsnips.
It is unfortunate that the following advice given in this same chapter has not been followed by the world; if it had been heeded, we should not have been obliged to adopt in America a certain Constitutional Amendment.
Wine is as good as life to a man, if it be drunk moderately; what life is then to a man without wine? for it was made to make men glad.
Wine measurably drunk and in season bringeth gladness of the heart, and cheerfulness of the mind:
But wine drunken with excess maketh bitterness of the mind, with brawling and quarrelling.
The author was a "forward-looking man," for in this verse in the thirty-third chapter he seems to have foreseen a domestic problem in our time:
If thou have a servant, entreat him as a brother: for thou
hast need of him, as of thine own soul: if thou entreat him evil, and he run from thee, which way wilt thou go to seek him?
Considering the towering position in modern life and in modern fiction held by the physician, the opening words of Chapter XXXVIII are significant:
Honour a physician with the honour due unto him for the uses which ye may have of him: for the Lord hath created him. . . .
The skill of the physician shall lift up his head: and in the sight of great men he shall be in admiration.
All hero-worshippers, of whom I am one, will receive encouragement and stimulation from the magnificent passage in Chapter XLIV, beginning, "Let us now praise famous men." In these glorious verses homage is paid to statesmen, prophets, teachers, poets, musicians, philanthropists: "all these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times." Then follows an eloquent tribute to all the unknown humble men and women who have in their days on earth done deeds of kindness and mercy.
Occasionally, in the midst of passages of shrewd wisdom, there comes in the style a sudden noble elevation:
O Death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee to a man that liveth at rest in his possessions, unto the man that hath nothing to vex him, and that hath prosperity in all things: yea, unto him that is yet able to receive meat!
O Death, acceptable is thy sentence unto the needy, and unto him whose strength faileth, that is now in the last age, and is
vexed with all things, and to him that despaireth, and hath lost patience!
Perhaps no part of the Apocrypha has had more influence on the art of painting than the story of Susanna, which has a book to itself. In European galleries, one becomes weary of the eternal repetition of the two old bearded peepers--Susanna and the elders are much better known on canvas than they are in the original narrative, which has also produced a proverb universally quoted whose source is all but unknown. The story brings out clearly the perverted folly of these aged judges, for there is no fool like an old fool. When they attempted to convict Susanna in the court, a young man named Daniel appeared, who is rather absurdly called "a young youth," but whose method of ascertaining truth was the reverse of absurd. He turned the tables, saved the virtuous lady, and destroyed the elders.
I suppose that very few when they read or quote from The Merchant of Venice, "A Daniel come to judgment!" realise that it is not from the book of Daniel, but from the book of Susanna, that Shakespeare obtained his example.
To those who are accustomed to make a distinction between sacred and profane history, the First Book of The Maccabees will produce something akin to a shock; for it opens with an account of Alexander the Great.
And it happened, after that Alexander, son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came out of the land of Chettiim, had smitten Darius, king of the Persians and Medes, that he reigned in his stead, the first over Greece.
And made many wars, and won many strongholds, and slew the kings of the earth.
And went through to the ends of the earth, and took spoils of many nations, insomuch that the earth was quiet before him; whereupon he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up.
And he gathered a mighty strong host, and ruled over countries, and nations, and kings, who became tributaries unto him. And after these things he fell sick, and perceived that he should die.
The history of many years is then summarised in a sentence, until we come to the villain of the book, Antiochus IV, surnamed Epiphanes, king of Syria. He endeavoured to put in place of Hebrew customs, worship and ritual, the Greek ideas and methods; he was resisted by the Jews, who found a great patriotic leader in Judas Maccabeus. The wars between Judas and the king took place in the second century before Christ, and are the subject of the First Book of the Maccabees. The narrative is exceedingly valuable as history, and of course is written from the patriotic point of view. Judas Maccabeus was one of five sons of Mattathias, a sturdy orthodox Jew, who stoutly resisted the victorious king, and called upon the fainthearted Hebrews to remember all that Jehovah had done for them since the time of Abraham. It is interesting there as everywhere to see how powerful a force is national tradition--
how every heroic man and every heroic deed stands up out of the long past, as a living force.
When Mattathias came to die, he gathered his sons around him, and told them of the might of faith.
Fear not then the words of a sinful man: for his glory shall be dung and worms.
Today he shall be lifted up, but tomorrow he shall not be found, because he is returned into his dust, and his thought is come to nothing.
Wherefore, ye my sons, be valiant, and shew yourselves men in the behalf of the law; for by it shall ye obtain glory. . . .
As for Judas Maccabeus, he hath been mighty and strong, even from his youth up: let him be your captain, and fight the battle of the people.
The accounts of the numerous battles that follow are spirited and dramatic; and the speeches of Judas are as fine as his deeds. After the death of Antiochus, his son came up and besieged Jerusalem, with a hundred thousand infantry, twenty thousand cavalry, and thirty-two trained elephants. The way these huge beasts were used in battle is interesting; they were shown the blood of grapes and mulberries to excite their fighting spirit.
And upon the beasts were there strong towers of wood, which covered every one of them, and were girt fast unto them with devices: there were also upon every one two and thirty strong men, that fought upon them, beside the Indian that ruled him.
In the eighth chapter of the First Book there is
an interesting reference to the character and prestige of the Romans.
Now Judas had heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were mighty and valiant men, and such as would lovingly accept all that joined themselves unto them, and make a league of amity with them;
And that they were men of great valour.
Then follows a recital of the conquest of the earth by the Romans, how they had subdued mighty kings, and all nations that resisted them, so that they really were the men of destiny.
Yet for all this none of them wore a crown, or was clothed in purple, to be magnified thereby:
Moreover how they had made for themselves a senate house, wherein three hundred and twenty men sat in council daily, consulting always for the people, to the end they might be well ordered:
And that they committed their government to one man every year, who ruled over all their country, and that all were obedient to that one, and that there was neither envy nor emulation among them.
Therefore a treaty was made between the Romans and the Jews. By these few verses which describe the Romans as they were appraised by aliens, we see how the genius of that people for both war and government was widely understood; and how it accounted for the power of Rome; it is by strikingly similar methods that the British Empire is the mightiest force in the world today. The Romans appealed to Judas Maccabeus as an eminently
reasonable nation, men with whom a sensible man could talk and do business.
In the second chapter of the Second Book of the Maccabees there is a highly diverting passage, which ought to be read and deeply pondered by every person who writes a book or tells a story. Nearly all books, narratives, articles, sermons, and speeches are too long; nearly all could have been improved if their makers had practiced the divine art of omission and selection; if they had had an instinctive sense of what is important and what is superfluous; if they had known the value of emphasis; if they had felt any mercy.
It appears that the writer had before him a long history in five books, and he wisely and mercifully conceived it to be his duty to condense these five books into one. He well knew the task was one not lightly to be undertaken; that it would cost him immense labour and anxiety; but he had compassion on his readers, and determined to undertake the beneficent work of abridgment. This is the delightful way in which he writes his explanatory preface, so delightful a way that our hearts warm toward him, for we have all suffered greatly from long-winded orators and voluminous penmen.
All these things, I say, being declared by Jason of Cyrene in five books, we will assay to abridge in one volume.
For considering the infinite number, and the difficulty which they find that desire to look into the narrations of the story, for the variety of the matter,
We have been careful, that they that will read may have delight, and that they that are desirous to commit to memory might have ease, and that all into whose hands it comes might have profit.
Therefore to us, that have taken upon us this painful labour of abridging, it was not easy, but a matter of sweat and watching;
Even as it is no ease unto him that prepareth a banquet, and seeketh the benefit of others: yet for the pleasuring of many we will undertake gladly this great pains;
Leaving to the author the exact handling of every particular, and labouring to follow the rules of an abridgment . . .
Here then will we begin the story: only adding thus much to that which hath been said, that it is a foolish thing to make a long prologue, and to be short in the story itself.
It is curious that in those days we should find an editor of such admirable judgment and temper, and with that fine flavour of humour. He is a model.
The style of the abridgment is spirited and strong, carrying the reader irresistibly. There are pungent phrases here and there, as "one Auranus being the leader, a man far gone in years, and no less in folly."
In the description of the Hebrew martyrs, in Chapters VI and VII, the story is dramatic in the extreme, and must have stirred the blood and courage of the Jews for many generations. It seems that a victorious king endeavoured to make the captives eat swine's flesh, strictly forbidden by the Mosaic Law. He promised them every favour and kindness if they would submit, and the most horrible tortures if they refused. Once more, as in other cases in history, we see how the individual will is
stronger not only than the fear of death, but stronger than the fear of frightful bodily and mental anguish. The tormentors took Eleazar, an old scribe, and forcibly fed him with pork; but he spit it forth, and gladly embraced torture. Then the executioners, being fond of the splendid old man, suggested that he could pretend to eat it, while really eating pure food secretly provided; but, to the glory not only of his nation, but of humanity, he replied:
For it becometh not our age, said he, in any wise to dissemble, whereby many young persons might think that Eleazar, being fourscore years and ten, were now gone to a strange religion,
And so they through mine hypocrisy, and desire to live a little time and a moment longer, should be deceived by me, and I get a stain to mine old age, and make it abominable.
He therefore went to the torture with a firm step and a cheerful face.
Then the king took seven brothers and their mother together. Each young man in turn was tortured so horribly that it makes the flesh of the reader creep, for it is impossible to read of such hellish devices without actual physical suffering. They were every one given the chance to recant; but they declined, and were slowly burned and flayed and hacked to pieces with their mother looking on.
But the mother was marvellous above all, and worthy of honourable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord.
Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach.
When there was only one left, the youngest son, the king asked the mother to urge him to conform so that his life might be spared:
And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised him that she would counsel her son.
But she, bowing herself toward him, laughing the cruel tyrant in the face, spake in her country language on this manner: O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee suck three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age, and endured the troubles of education.
Then she counselled him to stand fast, and be worthy of his dead brothers, whose mangled corpses were before them. He then defied the king, and had the worst death of all; he was quickly followed by his mother.
At the end of the book, the abridging historian concludes quaintly:
And if I have done well, and as is fitting the story, it is that which I desired: but if slenderly and meanly, it is that which I could attain unto.
For as it is hurtful to drink wine or water alone; and as wine mingled with water is pleasant, and delighteth the taste: even so speech finely framed delighteth the ears of them that read the story. And here shall be an end.
Whether drinking water alone was then hurtful or not, it is true that monotony in everything,
whether in food, drink, or rhetoric, becomes dull; and in this author we have an early example of a thoroughly self-conscious literary artist, who practiced composition with pain and pleasure; the pain of strenuous effort, and the pleasure of devotion to his work.